Over the last four seasons, J.J. Watt was building a case as the greatest defensive player ever.
After a solid rookie season, Watt exploded. The Houston Texans defensive end had 69 sacks over the past four seasons. He won three NFL defensive player of the year awards. Nobody can match that four-year run. Not Reggie. Not Deacon. Not Butkus. Not L.T. And when Watt was given his third defensive player of the year award last February, he was only 26 years old. Another four or five years at that level, and the greatest ever argument would have probably been over.
Maybe 2016, and the back injury that sent him to injured reserve after three games, is just a small bump in the road for Watt. Maybe his story is more Joe Montana — who had many good years left after doctors suggested retirement following back surgery in 1986 — than Terrell Davis, whose rightful place in NFL history was lost after knee injuries cut his career short.
Watt had surgery to repair a herniated disc in July. The specifics of his recent injury and the treatment for it are unclear. The good news is that, medically, Watt’s back issues don’t appear to be so bad they’d threaten his career or take a crippling bite out of his effectiveness.
In 2011, Reuters published a story based on a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine which declared back surgeries for NFL linemen aren’t usually career ending. The study said among NFL linemen who had surgery to repair a disc, 81 percent came back to play at least one game.
“They aren’t broken, they aren’t more fragile after surgery,” orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph K. Weistroffer told Reuters. “Four out of five who have surgery not only return to play, they return to starter positions.”
Dr. David Chao, a former San Diego Chargers doctor who is active on Twitter @ProFootballDoc, said even without the specifics it’s a “huge leap” to think that Watt would need a serious fusion surgery or that the injury is career-threatening.
“J.J. Watt will still have a career, I believe, going forward,” Chao told the Houston Chronicle. “The question is: Will he be NFL Defensive Player of the Year caliber J.J. Watt or just very good J.J. Watt? That’s the question that remains unanswered until there’s more medical detail on what happened to him.”
Although that seems mostly positive, there’s a risk with any surgery, especially when your profession revolves around battling 300-pound men at full speed (and in Watt’s case, usually two and sometimes three of those 300-pound men on any play).
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had surgery for a herniated disc in 2013. Gronkowski, who missed his final college season due to back surgery, did return to his old form. But a Boston Globe story from 2013 outlined the risks.
“Offensive and defensive linemen — and Gronk is included, because he does some blocking — are at the greatest risk for developing a poor outcome after this kind of surgery,” Dr. Wellington Hsu, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told the Globe. “They play the game in a squatting position, and have a lot of force on their back when they hit 300-pound defenders.”
Former NFL offensive lineman and current analyst Ross Tucker was quoted in that Globe story saying he was never the same after his back surgery.
“The truth is, it was a full year before I really felt good, and I never felt 100 percent again,” Tucker said. “I played three years after my surgery, but I was just a little bit less explosive. I never felt like my back was brand new.”
And when we’re talking about Watt’s ability to regain his all-time great form, a little less explosion could make a big difference. All signs indicate he’ll come back and play, and he’ll probably be a very good player when he returns. But will we ever see peak Watt again? Can he pick up where he left off and put together a few more seasons that would put him on a pedestal above Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White or whoever your pick is as the greatest defensive player in NFL history? Next season Watt will be 28, and NFL players age fast. Especially those like Watt who are magnets for extra blocking attention.
And Watt seemed to understand that his career might not be the longest, even before the back injury. In a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story, he said, “I know how little time I have in this game” and also “I don’t see myself as a 15-year NFL player.”
Maybe in 2017 Watt will pick up where he left off and again look like one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Gronkowski did, after all. So did Montana and others. But that path for Watt is a lot more foggy now than it was in July, when we first heard about his back injury.
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